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Friday, August 15, 2014

Pittsburgh Pirates Jeff Locke suffered from envy of childhood friend from Conway

George Scione

Wednesday morning a colleague mentioned the 1919 Black Sox scandal in a column dealing with the darkest days in Major League Baseball history.

Perhaps Alan Greenwood is the second-coming of Nostradamus? ...

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Wednesday morning a colleague mentioned the 1919 Black Sox scandal in a column dealing with the darkest days in Major League Baseball history.

Perhaps Alan Greenwood is the second-coming of Nostradamus?

Imagine my surprise when later that same day the Shoeless Joe Jackson-led team came up in conversation again. Not because of another debate over whether or not that Chicago White Sox team and all its players actually fixed World Series games, but because news reports that one player from New Hampshire had been part of his own game-fixing investigation.

According to a story that will be published in the Aug. 18 issue of Sports Illustrated, Pittsburgh Pirates southpaw and Conway native Jeff Locke was under investigation for working with a sports handicapper to fix games.

The 2006 Kennett High School graduate – known as The Redstone Rocket for his fastball; the name of his neighborhood, Redstone; and, some say, a state historical connection to America’s first man in space, Derry’s Alan Shepard, who was launched in Freedom 7 by a Redstone rocket – has been cleared.

This story isn’t just one of those allegations against a National League All Star for mimicking Eddie Cicotte and literally throwing games. It’s the strange story of a scorned friend seeking revenge against a professional athlete.

It all revolves around 27-year-old Kris Barr, a youth baseball teammate and close childhood friend of Locke’s. Barr would go by the alias “James Hunter,” according to the the Center for Investigative Reporting, when in the role of “the best sports handicapper on the planet,” with VIP Sports.

Barr and Locke lost touch after sixth grade when Barr’s mom won the New Hampshire Lottery’s $1,000-per-week Cash for Life prize and the family moved to Arizona. Locke stressed that situation for reporters when discussing the story prior to Wednesday’s Pirates game in Detroit against the Tigers.

“I did read it, as gut-wrenching as it is,” Locke said. “The only truth to it is the fact that the last time we spoke was elementary school. And, that his family won cash for life or something. But that’s why we realized why we never saw them after that.”

Locke, 26, grew into a star on the diamond. The lefty became one of the best high school hurlers in Granite State history. He threw a couple no-hitters (one a perfect game) as a sophomore, spun a five inning mercy rule-shortened no-no as a junior – during which every out was a K. He finished his Eagles career at 34-2 with a 0.49 ERA, which led the Atlanta Braves to pick him in the second round of that June’s MLB Amateur Draft.

The Braves traded Locke to the Pirates in 2009 and he reached the majors in September of 2011, making his MLB debut in a Sept. 10 loss to the Florida Marlins. His first career win came the next fall on Oct. 1, 2012, giving up one run in six innings against the Braves. His All-Star season came in 2013 when San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy selected him for the pitching staff.

While Locke was climbing the ladder to the majors, his former friend was trying to reach out on Facebook. Locke ignored friend requests of Barr and his brother, who pushed the issue in a private message. Locke replied, expressing his belief that they were only touching base because he was now a professional athlete.

This outcome makes me think Locke was on to something.

Most of today’s younger, upcoming starswill take the attention of any hangers-on and try and create the biggest entourage possible. Locke, it appears, may be one of the wiser pros. He attempted to avoid any future troubles by going with his initial gut feeling and denying the Barrs’ requests.

What he didn’t expect was that a grown man would treat a social media rejection like a romantic breakup. Barr, trying to drum up business in his sports handicapping career, started spreading rumors that “his best friend” was Locke and that he was set to throw games.

Locke’s early struggles with the Pirates went perfectly with Barr’s texted predictions and eventually MLB security was involved.

When Barr was finally tracked down and confessed that he made the whole fix story up because he was upset with Locke’s refusal to renew their friendship, the authorities didn’t believe him.

After multiple interrogations and phone record checks of Barr, Locke was cleared of any wrongdoing, and Barr was ordered to never attempt contact in any form with his one-time childhood buddy from Conway.

Not quite the bizarre Catfishing hoax of San Diego Chargers linebacker Manti Te’o while he was at Notre Dame, but just as devious.

Barr put Locke’s reputation, credibility and career on the line over hurt feelings. Then again, perhaps he had plans to recruit Locke all along. There’s big money in sports booking. If a handicapper or bookie has an insider – well, put two and two together.

Of course, the simplest reason for Barr’s actions is exactly what Locke himself expressed to reporters.

“To be honest with you, if I could sum it up for you guys as simple as I can: I think I come from a small, very envious town. That’s all,” Locke said. “A lot of jealousy. No different from where a lot of these other guys come from. From other countries, where other people aren’t as wealthy as you.”

Or as popular, successful and famous.

Locke just refused to get punked. Unfortunately, record-wise, that’s only his fifth win of the season.

George Scione can be reached at 594-6520 or gscione@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Scione on Twitter (@Telegraph_BigG).